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Amateurs get in on the paparazzi beat

Cell phone cameras allow more European publications to reach new levels of reader interactivity.

4 min read
HAMBURG, Germany--A few days before he planted his head into the chest of the Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final, ensuring an inglorious end to a stellar soccer career, Zinédine Zidane stepped out onto the balcony of his Berlin hotel and had a cigarette.

From an office building nearby, someone whipped out a camera phone and took a picture. A couple of days later, the snapshot, in all its grainy sensation, was in the pages of Bild, the top-selling German tabloid.

The reader-reporter had struck again.

Bild's Leser-Reporter, or reader-reporter feature, introduced during the World Cup, brought its audience daily photos of celebrities, politicians and soccer stars--taken from the cell phone cameras of quick-thinking passers-by and sent to the paper.

"Before, readers saw something in the street and called it in to the newspaper," said Christoph Simon, a Bild editor. "Times have changed."

The paper paid 500 to 1,000 euros for photos printed in the reader-reporter pages, and, by the end of the World Cup tournament, as many as 1,000 pictures were arriving daily.

Bild has decided to extend the venture and join a growing number of European publications that are taking advantage of cell phone technology to reach new levels of reader interactivity and, some say, invasion of privacy.

News organizations like CNN and The Guardian have been using reader-generated photos and video files since the Asian tsunami in December 2004. But the Norwegian tabloid VG and, recently, the regional Saarbr?cker Zeitung in Germany were pioneers in mobilizing readers with regular reader-reporter sections. Bild and a Swiss tabloid, Blick, have followed--bringing millions of readers into the new age of "citizen journalism."

"The important events of the future will be documented by amateur photographers," said Nicolaus Fest, a member of the Bild editorial board. "We knew that early on, but didn't have the technical possibilities to do it."

Better resolution, more publishable images
Improved cell phone camera resolution enables the printing of clearer photos in larger formats. Bild has followed its soccer and celebrity photos in recent weeks with sensational car fires, weather pictures and photos of car models not yet on the market. Fest says it will not be long before a reader-generated picture of a newsworthy event will run on the front page.

"Amateur photographers are omnipresent," he said, "and that's an interesting development. Whether you see them with fear or hope, that depends on your point of view."

Christian Schertz, a lawyer to the stars, is clearly in the first camp.

"I'm reminded of George Orwell. The normal citizen is encouraged to watch a fellow citizen," said Schertz, who counts Bild among his consistent sparring partners. "And he even gets money for it."

Since Bild introduced the feature, Schertz has represented three celebrities--former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany, and two players on the national soccer team, David Odonkor and Lukas Podolski. All captured the attention of the new amateur paparazzi.

Schertz persuaded a judge to order Bild to erase from its archives a photo of Odonkor seemingly urinating in a parking lot. He says he expects the same result for the photos of Fischer leaving a French bakery and Podolski standing on a Majorca beach.

"The restriction in the private lives of celebrities is already at the point where you can talk about a human rights violation," said Schertz, the walls in his elegant office decorated with gifts from his prominent clients.

Indeed, lawyers like Schertz have the backing of the European Court of Human Rights in their quest to shield the private lives of their clients.

In 2004, the court's judges ruled in favor of Princess Caroline of Hanover, who brought a case against German publications that had printed unauthorized photos of her and her children.

But a decision a few months later by the German Constitutional Court limited the reach of the European court's decision. Muddling the issue further are the different approaches to celebrity privacy in European countries--from the strict, celebrity-friendly laws in France to an anything-goes attitude in Britain.

Judges in Europe "made note of the 'Caroline decision,'" said Wolfgang Schulz, media expert and director of the Hans Bredow Institute at the University of Hamburg. "But I don't think we can yet talk about a movement toward more protection of celebrities."

Defining citizen journalism
Bild certainly does not seem worried. What Schertz calls "daily calculated legal violations," Fest calls freedom of the press. He says the paper is diligent about checking all sources and the circumstances in which a photo was taken--a practice he says it has extended to its reader-reporters as well.

Similar care is taken by Scoopt.com, a British Web site that sees itself as a "citizen journalism agency," connecting camera phone reporters with newspapers. The site's founder, Kyle McRae, a former freelance technology writer, counts the major British dailies, along with newspapers on the Continent and in the United States, as his clients.

Unlike Bild, Scoopt's reader-reporters license their photos for three months to McRae's organization, and in return receive 50 percent of the sale price every time Scoopt sells a picture.

The Web site has members in 90 countries, and McRae talks of a day when a global legion of bloggers and camera phone reporters replaces journalists in covering major news events.

"Being the first on the scene is valuable," he said. "It's thousands of times more valuable than the quality."

But a cursory click through Simon's reader-reporter inbox at Bild shows that McRae's vision may be years away. For every newsworthy accident or fire, there are several comical road signs, pet portraits or celebrity photos where nothing is happening.

As he scrolls down the pictures on his screen at Bild headquarters in Hamburg, Simon clicks on one of the race car driver Ralf Schumacher beaming at close range into the camera.

"This is nice," he said. "But where's the news here?"